The funeral customs of Sulawesi: what Tana Toraja is famous for.
You should visit Toraja in Sulawesi if you're interested in the most incredible animist funeral customs of the World.
Do you know the main three things the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is famous for?
Here are the reasons why the travellers visit this piece of paradise:
* diving in the Celebes sea where the experience is known as one of the best of the World and where we can find the third biggest atoll, Taka Bonerate.
* the Torajan coffee, a mix of Arabica and Robusta, the best coffee I ever drink.
* the funeral customs of Toraja.
If you have read my article on the funerals I was invited to join in Cambodia and if you are familiar with my blog, you know I love to participate in the local ceremonies as the best way to learn about a culture.
Sulawesi island, especially the Toraja country, was fascinating me since a long time.
I had heard about their funeral customs, especially their mummies and cliff tombs.
I was hoping to witness one of their long funeral ceremonies and learn about Aluk Todolo (the way to the Ancestors), the oral tradition of the Torajan people.
I was lucky to meet some local people who taught me a lot about their culture, aluk to dolo and their rituals.
Let me introduce you the funeral customs of Toraja.
Don’t miss the end of the article, where you will find the information you need to prepare your trip to Sulawesi.
What I learned during a private funeral.
On my first morning in Rantepao, the main town of Toraja, a local family invited me for a private funeral.
Benjamin and his family are Christian. I’ll discover later that they are the richest family of Rantepao.
They came from different part of Indonesia, but also from abroad, to celebrate the funeral of Benjamin’s mother-in-law.
That’s why they didn’t have time for the traditional one-week funeral.
I join them around noon in a place they had prepared outside, close to my guesthouse.
The Mass is almost finished but they are still singing and praying.
The priest introduces each member of the family to the guests. They tell some anecdotes and laugh.
Then it’s time for the traditional pics with the coffin, always in a great joy.
Before the lunch, they show us one of the big water buffalos that will be killed for the deceased.
The sacrificed animals will follow the dead in her new life to help her and serve as a vehicle to reach her new world.
It’s also a way to pay respect to the dead and show the wealth of the family.
People buy the water buffalos and porks sacrificed during the Torajan funerals in the interesting Pasar Bolu market.
This market was built by Frederik, Benjamin’s brother!
The spotted, biggest buffalos are the most expensive. Blue eyes are also important.
The average price for a buffalo is 20 millions of Indonesian rupees (1400€/1500$).
The number of sacrifices indicates the wealth of the family.
The big funerals of the richest families can cost 375 000€/400 000$ only for the buffalos.
The buffalo will live with the family who will take great care of him, almost like a family member.
Frederick proudly showed me some pics of his – very expensive spotted blue-eyed – buffalo on his mobile phone.
Then, it’s time for the lunch.
We all eat the famous and delicious pa’piong, the funeral dish, cooked in a bamboo for several hours.
It is made from meat, vegetable and coconut.
We also eat different kind of meat meals and rice.
The family's mountain.
Most of the guests leave after the lunch. Only the family stays.
They put some big bamboos on the coffin to carry it.
With a huge and laughing “let’s go”, they invite me to follow them.
The pic of the dead is hold by some members of the family, at the beginning of the procession.
We walk in the streets of Rantepao.
Our first stop is close to some tongkonans, the Torajan typical houses.
Their roof is like a boat as the Torajan people come from the sea.
The entrance door is decorated with the horns of the water buffalos sacrificed by the family during the funerals.
The outside wooden walls are painted with some scenes from Nature.
We all receive a small bottle of water. After drinking a little bit, we splash each other.
Frederik, who joined me, doesn’t stop to shout “That’s the tradition! That’s the tradition!”
We continue our way and the men are shouting.
At the next junction, the coffin is turned and turned and turned again.
Toraja is the country where the Deads walk to return home.
By turning the coffin, the family ensures the soul won’t find her way back to home.
It’s now time for us to climb the mountain.
The path is smaller and smaller and the men have to cut the bamboos stick if they want to be able to continue their way.
The slope is hard and the ground slippery.
We finally arrive at the top of the mountains. The view is wonderful.
This is the last and most touching part of the rituals.
Toraja: where living wit the Deads is a common custom.
The family opens one of their two funeral houses and put the coffin on the ground.
Everybody sing and pray.
Then, the closest relatives enter the house. They strongly cry and shout.
For them, it’s the achievement of a very long process that can last for several months, even years.
When someone dies in Toraja, his family calls him “to makula”.
They think he’s not really dead, but only sick.
They continue to live with him, give him food four times a day, talk to him, pray with him, change his clothes, sleep close to him.
They can do it for months, even years until they are ready for the funerals.
The richest family are generally the ones who keep their relative the longest.
This tradition explains why the last ritual of this private funeral was so touching.
The funerals are the moment for the Torajan people to let their dead ones go, after several months or years of active cohabitation.
It was really impressive to see everybody cry at the same time, inside and outside the funeral house.
I could feel their emotions and pain.
I didn’t take many photos as I wanted to share and respect their pain.
I took the video below and for a long time I kept it private on You Tube.
As I better understand the Asian customs, I now know it’s not a problem to share it with you.
Don’t miss the beautiful landscape at the end of the video.
After this touching moment, the last pic of the family – with me – is taken. The funeral house is closed.
The joy is back and we receive some sweets and fruit juice.
We return to Rantepao, where some relatives offer us a collation.
Q&A on Toraja and Sulawesi
I compiled your questions on Toraja to help you to prepare your next trip there and answer the most common questions you have.
If you want to add something (question or answer), use the comments field at the end of the article and I will add it here.
Where is Toraja located? What is Tana Toraja? Where is Tana Toraja?
Toraja is located in the Southern centre of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The main cultural town is Rantepao.
Tana Toraja means “Land of the Toraja”. But the former “Tana Toraja” regency has been divided into two regencies: Tana Toraja with its capital in Makale, and Toraja Utara with its capital Rantepao.
Although Mamassa Valley, in the western part of South Sulawesi doesn’t belong to Toraja, the funeral customs have a lot in common.
Flying to Toraja? Airport near Toraja?
You can’t fly directly to Toraja.
The nearest airport is in Makassar, the main city of Sulawesi.
Tip: If you come from outside Asia and want to save time and money, take a regular flight to Kuala Lumpur then a low cost flight to Makassar (Ujung Padang).
Toraja: How to get there? How to reach Toraja?
The main entrance for the visitors is Rantepao.
The dusty town can be reached mainly via an eight-hour trip from Sulawesi’s largest city, Makassar.
The landscapes are magnificent: stilt houses above the rice fields or the fish ponds, rich teak houses, karstic peaks.
Then the coast, fishing nets and traditional boats.
The long slope begins at mid-way.
Why visit Tana Toraja? What to do in Toraja? What to see in Toraja? What is Tana Toraja famous for? Why travel to Toraja?
There are so many reasons to visit this fascinating area: the funeral customs, the wedding traditions, the exotic landscapes, the hiking possibilities, the kindness of the population, Torajan coffee, the butterflies…
Tana Toraja: when to go?
The funeral season is in August. But I was there in September and have seen a lot of funerals.
Tana Toraja: where to stay?
It’s hard to answer such a question as we all are different.
I was staying in Wisma Maria. It wasn’t a beautiful typical place but Benjamin’s family was staying there and I wouldn’t have met them if I hadn’t stayed there.
This place is good if you’re looking to stay close to the locals.
If you want to stay in a wonderful and beautiful place, you should try the magnificent resort, opposite to Wisma Maria – if my memory is good… Luta Resort Toraja.
I met a French photographer in Rantepao and we often ate in their quiet and lovely restaurant for a very good price.
Tana Toraja: how many days?
Again, it depends on you.
There are so many villages, hiking possibilities and cultural discoveries that you can stay only a few days or several weeks.
I spent about 3 weeks between Rantepao and Mamassa.
Tana Toraja without guide. Guide for Toraja.
If you’re like me and easily invited by the locals, you don’t need any guide as your new friends will do everything to show you their customs and landscapes.
If it’s hard for you to talk with the locals, it’s better to get a guide for the funerals so you will understand the rituals.
You don’t need any guide for hiking.
I was really lucky to be the guest of this family and to learn so much about their beliefs.
It’s great to see that, despite the arrival of Christianism on their island, the Torajan people have been able to keep their own beliefs until now.
But it was only the beginning of what I learned about the fascinating culture of Central Sulawesi.
On the next day, I could witness a one-week funeral and was invited in two funerals on the day after.
A few days later, I could discover the wooden effigy called tau-tau. I have seen the special place where the dead children are kept, found an old funeral place into the jungle and seen the different kind of Torajan graves.
And you, have you already visited Sulawesi? What was the purpose of your visit?
Did you know about the special funeral customs of the Torajan people? Would you like to discover it by yourself?
Use the comment section below to start the conversation!
Pin me for later
Stephanie Langlet is called Indie, the female Indiana Jones by her French readers.
She helps the travellers to feel comfortable outside of their comfort zone and to travel closer to the people and culture.
She is a Trip Planner, blogger and a Hospitality and Management Consultant.
Fond of the Tribes and Minorities, she’s specialised since 2012 in the tribes and festivals of Central India and has collaborated with Chhattisgarh Tourism Board to promote it. She’s often interviewed by the Indian medias.
In 2015, she was recognised as one of the Top 6 foreign bloggers about India by Holidify, and as an influencer for Chhattisgarh by Chhattisgarh Tourism Board.
She also runs her own guesthouse in the south-west of France, from May to October.
Her mission is to help to the preservation of the traditions of the World, through the promotion of the traditional festivals and customs.